California Coast Needs an Irish Wake

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Peace out, Pacifica

Don’t despair, Del Mar

Never stress, Newport Beach.

Yes, sea levels are rising. Yes, California’s coastline is eroding and changing. And we are going to lose beloved beaches, bluffs, and homes. 

But we must not let our responses to sea-level rise become dominated by fear, division, and local politics, which will produce drastic, panicked and litigation-driven policies that our descendants will rue. Instead, we should embrace the coast’s shifting nature, and celebrate its evolution as a way to encourage our own.

How? In the spirit of California, I want us all to party on the beach. All day and all night. The state should apply the full force of its fun-making genius to organizing free, public events that draw Californians to the coast. 

The idea of partying around floods is as old as the Book of Genesis, when Noah celebrated surviving apocalypse in his ark by drinking wine and taking off his clothes. And in recent years, a few communities, including San Rafael and Santa Cruz, have hosted wonky community events on sea-level rise. 

But the events I’m suggesting would go further, combining the spirit of  an Irish wake, a beach barbecue and an urban planning meeting. There would be good food, abundant drink, and grand visions to help us mourn the coast we’re losing so that we might imagine a better future for our coastal communities, and ourselves.

In saying this, I don’t mean to minimize the seriousness of climate change or emergency preparation. Under worst-case scenarios, nearly one million Californians could be displaced, 400,000 homes could be lost, and property damage could approach $200 billion. But I do want to address a serious flaw in our climate-change planning:  we’re focusing too much on what we do, and not enough on how we do it

Already the state is mired in bitter struggles over rising sea-levels—between those who want to defend themselves from the ocean with sea walls and those who prefer “managed retreat” from the coast. Those battles could harden into divisive, decades-long legal and political battles.

So let’s not build a wall. Let’s not retreat. Let’s put on our wet suits and wade in. Let’s embrace the flood.

And let’s start by moving the conversation out of the courts and lawyers’ offices, out of city council chambers, and out of Coastal Commission hearing rooms—and onto the coast itself. Bring on the beach parties, and the potlucksI Let’s have open houses at homes along doomed bluffs. Every coastal community should have a grand coastal fair. Given how fossil fuels contribute to climate change, the state should use oil revenues to pay for all this fun. 

Coastal fairs would combine food, fun and games—volleyball, sandbag-filling contests, and plenty of cold beer and ice cream—with information sharing. Agencies and experts could lay out markers to show where the coastline might move, and what might be lost, under different projections for sea-level rise.  Artists could create different visions of the future coast.

The goal of such gatherings would be to expand local knowledge, and to introduce new realities to the inland Californians who don’t get to the coast much.  Bringing more people to the coast could help build consensus about the challenges we face, and inspire new ideas. Kids should get involved in this new thinking, too. Why not have California schools ditch the outdated mission reports and have their students report on particular stretches of coast instead?

Responding to sea-level rise with beach parties also could stoke local democracy. Communities have been slow to create the inventories of vulnerable properties that they need to plan for sea-level rise.  If local communities don’t get their act together with smart, unifying plans for their coasts, the state government in Sacramento is likely to fill the void with one-size-fits-all policies that cause more conflict—like the never-ending water wars that plague California’s inland regions.

Sea-level rise also offers a huge opportunity to reclaim access to the coast for all Californians. Public infrastructure, rich homeowners, and various other wealthy interests have come to control too many of our prettiest coastal places. With the properties of the rich now at risk, there’s a real opening for Californians to take the coast back—but only if we pull together.

California’s most powerful tools for responding to sea-level rise are our affection for the coast and our sunny optimism in the face of Armageddon.

Let’s use both.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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